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Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity

The Rev. Dr. Robert Crouse

St. James' Church, November 15, 1981

"I thank my God.. .being confident of this very thing, that he who hath begun a good work in you will perfom it until the day of Jesus Christ." - Phil. 1,3 - 6

Today's Epistle lesson comes from St. Paul's letter to the Church at Philippi. Along with Colossians, Ephesians and Philemon, the Epistle to the Philippians belongs to the time of St. Paul's final imprisonment, in Rome, and in today's lesson, he refers to the “bonds” of that captivity.  The Christians at Philippi had sent him a gift, by the hands of Epaphroditus, together with news of their community, and his letter is basically an acknowledgement of the gift, and a response to the news. It's a very personal letter, really, full of affection and thanksgiving and confidence. 


Philippi was a city in eastern Macedonia, founded by King Philip, the father of Alexander the Great, in the 4th century, B.C.  Later on, it was a Roman colony, and, in 4 B.C., it was the scene of a decisive battle in which Anthony and Octavian - defeated Brutus and Cassius.  The city had great strategic importance, because it stood at a break in the mountains, through which all traffic from Asia Minor to Europe would normally pass. St. Paul first visited it in the course of his second missionary journey.  Perhaps you remember the story in Acts 16, which tells how he  had a vision, calling him to Macedonia, and how he and Barnabas immediately set out, for Philippi.  That is really one of the great dramatic moments in the history of Christian and European civilization: St. Paul crosses over from Asia to Europe and the seed of the Gospel is first planted in European soil. 


Now, at the end of all his missionary journeys, a captive in Rome, and soon to be a martyr, he writes to the Philippians, and the letter is full of thanksgiving and confidence - thankful, not only for their gift, but, above all for their “fellowship in the Gospel from the first day until now”, and confident that "he who has begun a good work in them will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ."  He urges them to make their conduct worthy of the Gospel of Christ, to give up the rivalries and personal vanities which mar their fellowship. He sets before them the example of the humility of Christ, who “took the form of a servant and became obedient unto death.”  In that spirit, they must be forgiving and forbearing in their love for one another.


The same teaching is presented in today's Gospel lesson, when Jesus, in his parable of the debtors, speaks of our heavenly Father's compassion and forgiveness as an example for us in our dealings with one another.  Should we forgive seven times, as the Law requires?  No, until seventy times seven – until we have lost all count.  So great is God's mercy towards us.


These Epistle and Gospel lessons seem to have a particular significance just now, as we draw near the conclusion of the Church's year.  The lessons for the last few Sundays after Trinity seem to offer a kind of summing up, a reflecting on the past, and a looking forward to Advent, to “the day of Jesus Christ.”  We look back with thankfulness for a good work begun in us, for the word of the Gospel established in us, planted and growing in our hearts.


No doubt our Christian life has been marred by mistakes, and deficiencies and perversions of one kind and another, perhaps by rivalries and personal vanities, as with the Christians at Philippi; at any rate, blemished by personal failures of one kind and another, causes of our own and others' sufferings.  Perhaps it seems to us that we have learned very little, and achieved very little in our Christian profession.


But God has begun a good work in us: he has sown the seed of eternal life in our hearts, and he has brought us together in a community of faith.  For all that, we must be infinitely thankful.  His compassions fail not, his love is new every morning.  Beside what God has done for us, beside the riches of his mercy, how stupid and silly and petty – how unspeakably petty – are our discouragements and our complaints.  To be sure, God's work is not complete or perfect in us. As St. Paul tells the Philippians, “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect, but I follow after.”  Not that we have already attained – no, but a beginning has been made, a seed has been planted, the seed of new life, the seed of God's Kingdom.  That seed, says Jesus, is like the mustard seed – the least of all seeds, so tiny we can hardly see it.  But when it sprouts and grows up, it becomes a great tree, so that the birds of the air come to lodge in its branches.  The seed of God's Kingdom is tiny and hidden; only by faith do we discern it at all.  It seems the least of all seeds.  But give thanks for that seed.  Cherish it and nourish it: it is God's good work begun in us.  It will spring up, and all the virtues of heaven will lodge in its branches, so that, as St. Paul says in today's lesson, “our love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgement: that we may approve things that are excellent; that we may be sincere, and without offence, till the day of Christ: being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ unto the glory and praise of God.”


Certainly there's plenty to complain about; if we have a mind to complain: we can complain endlessly about one another, about one another's stupidity, or insensitivity, or perversity; we can complain about a Church which seems often mixed-up and not very Christian; we can complain endlessly about ourselves, and our own failures and deficiencies; we can complain about how little progress we seem to be making.  But today's lessons urge us to a different perspective: rather, give thanks, for what God has done for us and in us, and let that consideration be the basis of our life together.


William Cowper, an eighteenth-century poet, puts it nicely:

Have we no words? ah, think again;  

    Words flow apace when we complain,  

And fill our fellow-creature 's ear

    With the sad tale of all our care.

Were half the breath thus vainly spent

    To heaven in supplication sent,  

Our cheerful song would oftener be  

    'Hear what the Lord hath done for me. '

Thank God, who has indeed begun a good work in us, and will perform it 'till the day of Jesus Christ.